Archives for posts with tag: religion

Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

The problem of evil is quite famous. Even if you’ve never heard about it, you still probably know what it is. God is supposed to have three qualities: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. Yet clearly evil exists in the world, and if evil exists, then God cannot have at least one of those three qualities. Either God knows of evil and is good, but can do nothing to stop it; or God is all powerful and all good, but is ignorant of evil; or God is all powerful and all knowing, but we’ll say is ambivalent towards the fact that evil exists. Hence, the problem of evil. Why devote yourself to any such a God?

As an example, since we are nothing if not a smidgen pretentious here at Blog for Chumps, I’m going to give a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov that summarizes it quite well:

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!

There have obviously been many attempts to account for the problem of evil. One of the more famous attempts was by St. Augustine of Hippo, who suggested that goodness was like light, and evil was like darkness. Darkness isn’t actually a thing, it is just an absence of light. A bit like how cold is really just the absence of heat. With regard to God and evil, evil doesn’t actually exist per se except as the absence of God. We can choose to follow God, or not, but then that rejection would cast a shadow onto the world, so to speak.

Of course, it’s all a bit bullshit, and isn’t going to convince anyone whose heart isn’t already in it. It creates more questions than it answers (Like how do free will and an all-powerful God coincide? What does “evil” mean, and can it really be described as the absence of goodness when so much of what is “evil” is just bad luck?). So the problem of evil remains.

What if, however, what if the problem of evil was not a theological thorn to be mulled over academically; what if the problem of evil was the universe’s way of saying, “Hey! Fuck Face! Remember how there was a little girl beaten half to death, smeared with shit, and then left in an outhouse to die during a famously unforgiving Russian winter? It was just a few paragraphs ago. It was indented and italicized and everything! That’s not that far off from what happens every day. Maybe y’all should do something ’bout that, hey!?”

This is not groundbreaking stuff. Bad things happen. We all know it. We all want to help. Caring about other people could almost be described as the only moral truism. I’m reminded of one of my favourite lines from The Committeean obscure psychedelic film from 1968 (scored by Pink Floyd):

Look, I’d like to explain to you about that guy. He’s enclosed in himself. He goes on and on, I get the feeling that he just isn’t concerned. Concerned with other people. I mean, everything else is a matter of taste, a matter of opinion. But if anyone can live on this earth and not care about other people…

The why to do anything about it is so obvious there’s almost no point in even asking. Why ought a human being react to suffering? The terms we use to describe such people who don’t typically hover around the word “monster.” They lack “humanity,” the very essence of what it means to be human. The “why” is the easiest thing. We are human. That’s why. The hard part comes after.

Part of the significance of the problem of evil is its enormity. If it could be conquered easily, pretty sure we would have figured it out by now. Some Benedictine Monk would have had a small epiphany one day, and been like, “Oh yeah, that’ll do it!” and everything would have been rosebuds from then on. But no, the evil is too enormous. Consider the unending wars in the Middle East, the threat of increasing world famine as global temperatures rise, the presidential election of a narcissistic bully; it is literally impossible for one person to do anything about all of that. It’s not even a David and Goliath scenario. It’s probably a bit closer to the story of David and the Atomic Bomb. You’d be lucky if more remains of you than your shadow dusted onto the floor.

It is an imposing sight. Some religions have decided to acknowledge the problem of evil, rather than deny it or skirt around it. The primary Buddhist truth is that life is suffering. They suggest getting over it. That’s certainly one way to handle it, but quite frankly if there’s a little girl beaten and stuck in an outhouse somewhere, I certainly hope that any passers-by wouldn’t have that attitude.

Like I said, the why is easy, but with its enormity, we can get a little lost on where to go from there. Who do you help? Having completed a social work degree, I can tell you that those in the caring profession focus primarily on helping themselves. Every guest lecturer spoke about self-care. That’s an easy place to start. Look after yourself. You’ve got to make sure that you yourself are not beaten half to death and smeared in shit before you go looking for others in such predicaments.

From here on out it’s simply a matter of emanating outwards. The first emanation is to your loved ones. These are the people that matter to you. Caring for them is not difficult either; some might even suggest that it’s even easier than caring for yourself. These are the people who support you, and in turn depend on you for support. Take care of them next.

The second emanation is to your community. The interdependence is a bit hazier here than with your loved ones, but it still exists to some degree. Your community supports you, and in turn, you need to support your community. Your community is still relatively easy to care for, as well. If you’re going to make a difference in the world, this is where it is likely going to be. Keep in mind, your community could be as small as your neighbourhood, as big as your country, or if you’re really masochistic, the planet itself. Each of those statements of community, however, has to be made with the understanding of who else belongs to that community too. You can’t claim to be a citizen of the world and then ignore those troublesome populations that don’t quite fit in with your worldview. It is totally fine to limit your community, however, since we have one final emanation to cover.

The third emanation is to everyone and everything else. Whether you’re caring for your family, your neighbourhood, your city, or your country, you have to at least be conscious of global affairs. Like if you’re developing a recycling program for your neighbourhood or whatever, you should at least be aware of the global slide into climate change. Or if you’re setting up refugees into shelters and connecting them with a community support network, you should at least be aware of the wars that pushed them into this situation, and the international backlash against their very existence. This is certainly not to dissuade you, just to remind you. This is the why, remember? The problem of evil is what motivated us in the first place. The problem of evil in all its monstrous, unholy glory. We’re doing this because we care on a scale bigger than ourselves, but we act within a limited range because that’s all we’re capable of.

I’m hoping that we’re all feeling pretty jazzed about caring for other people right about now, but before we go off all gang busters to do that there is one more thing I’d like to address. There were probably very few, if any of you who clicked on my The Committee hyperlink up there to examine it further, so I’ll highlight the following line, said in response to the protagonist’s quote about that guy who isn’t concerned for other people:

So you cut his head off. The thing you really seem to hold against him is typified by what you did to him.

Since this may seem odd (it’s a psychedelic film; it’s odd in context as well), the story goes that the protagonist killed some dude because that dude didn’t care for other people. He chopped his head clean off by slamming it under the hood of his car. If depicted today I imagine it would be quite graphic, but back in 1968 I assure you it was quite sterile.

The point is that it matters how we help people, just as much as who we help and why. The film quite pointedly declares that exacting vigilante justice on whomever we think deserves it is the wrong way to do it. Pro-tip: if your version of helping involves murder in any way, you’re doing it wrong. Now, the how has been debated longer than the problem of evil has even existed. What is the nature of morality? How do I help?

Lucky for you, I solved morality ages ago. The how is just about as easy as the why. Do you know what the entire culmination of philosophy of ethics has resulted in? I’ll tell you. We don’t know shit. Honestly, if you’re up for it, you can work through most of it playing this silly game, and the conclusion is the one I gave. We don’t know shit. What do we do when we don’t know shit? We ask. I’m a straight dude; what do I know about the problems of the LGBT community? A scraping, maybe, since I try to be socially conscious, but their grasp of it is the iceberg underneath the tip that I can see. If I were so inclined to care for that portion of my community, I would ask. What can I do to help? Want to care about the homeless? Find organizations closest to that demographic; what can I do to help? Aboriginal groups? What can I do to help? Adult male offenders? What can I do to help?

Ask. Learn. That shit is out there. Not just for community stuff either. How can you help your Mom? What about a niece or nephew? Close friends and lovers need help to, and the same rules apply. Is there a problem? What is it? How can I help?

The why driving us is so enormous that sometimes we can only focus on how big, grotesque, and impossible it all is. I can’t do this. There’s no point in doing that. Fuck those people they had their chance, I’m just going to make sure I come out okay. The monolith of evil can seem so tall that we feel like we are the only ones sitting under its shadow. But what it stands for is our ultimate driver: care for other people. Obviously. Ask them how you can help. Simple enough. And do it in such a way that you can make a difference. Whatever else you believe is irrelevant.

I’m going to close off here with a short parable. There’s an old man walking down a beach after high tide on a sunny, summer day. Millions of starfish remain from the tide, slowly drying out to their deaths in the hot sun. The old man picks up one starfish, carries it out to the water, and places it down. He continues this process for a time until he suddenly notices a small child is staring at him. The child asks, “Old man, why are you doing that? Can’t you see that there are too many starfish here? You’ll never save them all! What difference can you actually make?” The old man does not saying anything. He picks up a starfish, walks it over to the water, and puts it down in the ocean, saving its life. “Made a difference to that one,” says the old man.

Negative theology is approaching what we traditionally refer to as God and only describing It in negative terms. The idea is that God transcends human existence to such a degree that anything created by humans, language most particularly, cannot be used to define It. So for example, one could not say God is good because goodness is a term humans use to describe human events in such a way that we are capable of understanding it, and God in Its massivity would exist well beyond our capacity to understand Its characteristics to the point where ascribing “goodness” is nonsensical. The negative theologian would thus say that God is not-good. This might seem counter-intuitive and even anti-God, which leads to double-negative theology. Since broccoli is also not good, morally-speaking, and a comparison between the two is absurd, God would need to be described both as “not-good” and “not-not-good.” God could even be said to not exist under this framework, given that our human understanding of what it means to exist would be so far removed from God’s presence that the use of the word becomes too limiting. God would also certainly not-not-exist, but my amusement comes from using non-existence as a necessary divine trait.

There are three reasons that this approach appeals to me beyond the paradox of God’s non-existence describing God’s existence. Firstly, it coincides with my favourite “proof” of God. The human mind is quite finite and very likely incapable of a complete understanding of the universe, and given this reality it is again likely that there are things that exist in the realm outside of where our brains are able to comprehend. If what we refer to as God “exists”, It would exist in this realm and in turn would flummox our linguistic capabilities to the point where negative theology is the only theology that makes sense.

Second, language functions solely as social cohesion. It doesn’t point to anything. If I say the word chair, I’m not referring to a chair, I’m referring to my idea of a chair, and if your idea of a chair coincides with my own, you understand me. If I said chair, and you didn’t understand the word I was using, for instance if I used a foreign language or used the word cathedra (or something equally outlandish that might as well be a foreign language), there would be no understanding because the barrier between these social groups (non-English speakers and the pretentious against regular English speaking individuals) precludes a common linguistic grounding. We might both have the same idea of a chair, but because of that barrier we would not be able to communicate our shared idea. If my idea of a chair is four legs, a seat, and a back, and your idea of a chair is three legs, a seat, a cushion, and no back, and I ask you to help set up some chairs at a dinner party and you arrive with something that does not work for my seating arrangement, then again, understanding was not present. A barrier existed, but it was not in the language itself but in the idea. This is far more problematic since if no seating arrangement was ever necessary, then you can see how that lack of understanding might never present itself to ever be resolved.

So if language only exists within the shared understanding of a community, then as I said, it can’t point to anything real. If we are looking to describe something universal, then language is absolutely flawed in its capability to accomplish this. If I say “good”, understanding would only be possible under two conditions: we both share the same idea of the word, and I am expressing it in a language that is accessible to you. Those two requirements are only available in communal groups, so really, “God is good” is better used to describe the group that believes that God is good rather than to describe God.

Lastly, negative theology falls under the umbrella of my favourite philosophical doctrine, skepticism. If I can’t say anything about God, and you can’t say anything about God, then there’s no way we could ever actually disagree, even if our ideas of God are totally incoherent from one another. There would exist enough disbelief surrounding our ideas of God that fundamentalist dogmatism would become significantly more difficult to develop. I wouldn’t say impossible, since it is equally difficult to separate authoritarianism from organized religion even under the most compassionate doctrines, so I’ll hedge my bets on this one. Even still, anything that helps on the road to interfaith respect is a good thing.

Unfortunately, spoilsports dismiss this approach as removing God from any kind of religious pragmatism, and this is a valid criticism. If we can’t say anything about God, then why bother talking about It at all? Why worship something if we can’t even positively acknowledge that It exists? Why adhere to any doctrine? Part of Christianity’s appeal stems from the fact that Jesus is 100% a human man and 100% a God, and that makes Him far more relatable than the negative theologian’s unknowable God.

There are those who counter this, and say that we can point to events in the world, and use language to describe them with the understanding that it is being described in human terms. Like we can point to a rainfall after a long drought as God being good, because rain revitalizing our crops is something that would conform to a “good event” in a human sense. I disagree with this refutation because then some asshole could come along and say, well why was the drought so long to begin with? And that asshole would have a fair point. If we want to point to events in the world and describe them in a human context, then we would have to account for every event. God can’t work in mysterious ways if we just pointed to an event where we were quite comfortable using the word “good” to describe it.

Of course, the obvious solution is faith. There exists a feeling of God in a believer, and even if that feeling is not qualifiable by anything they could express, that does not negate the power or the drive that their faith brings them. That feeling may lead them to follow doctrines that they believe are most in line with their faith, even if relating them back to a God is again, impossible. Being unable to name God has never really been an obstacle before (notably Yahweh, and the fact that I’m not making this up and negative theology has a very long history predating Christianity), so I don’t see why it can’t be applicable now. Faith is a greater motivation than doctrine, and is far more honest in regards to its application.

Post-script: As I finish writing this, I now realize that double-negative theology is much better expressed as, “God is not good… OR IS IT???” rather than “God is not-good, and God is not-not-good.”